KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Bob Shoop engineered Top 25 defenses at Vanderbilt and Penn State, so it’s no surprise Tennessee’s first-year coordinator is giddy about all the toys he inherited in Knoxville.
“The end position, it’s three-deep, which is pretty legit,” Shoop said.
“(The depth) is unique to anything I’ve ever been around.”
Tennessee is loaded along the defensive line, returning All-American pass rusher Derek Barnett, who Shoop called “a savage,” underrated veteran Cory Vereen and then a slew of athletic pass rushers who can play multiple positions.
During training camp, sophomores Kyle Phillips and Kahlil McKenzie turned heads, while redshirt freshman end Darrel Taylor is fighting for snaps, too.
Of course, ballyhooed newcomer Jonathan Kongbo has garnered serious attention throughout the preseason.
“We want to be the best d-line in America and we’ve said that since Day 1,” junior tackle Kendal Vickers said.
“We have that on the white board in the d-line room. We come out here every day and grind.”
Shoop, as well as position coach Steve Stripling, has a mix of savvy veterans, nimble newcomers and a potential 2017 first-round pick to play with this fall. Competition for reps is at an all-time high, so fifth-year senior LaTroy Lewis said the unit repeats a famous mantra by future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick.
“The coaching staff, Shoop, (Butch) Jones, Strip, everybody, they ask one thing,” Lewis explained.
“The big mantra for the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick: Do your job. That’s it.”
Under Shoop’s attacking scheme, which mandates athleticism, smarts and versatility, Tennessee easily should surpass last season’s sack and tackle-for-loss totals. Barnett was the lone lineman to record more than four sacks, but he believes he’ll have a lot more help in 2016.
“Kyle Phillips, man, he’s gotten healthier and that’s a big thing. He’s worked really hard this offseason rehabbing,” Barnett told SEC Country.
“I saw him take a lot of steps. He’s long, fast, athletic. He’s going to help us a lot this year.”
Phillips, a 6-5, 259-pound former five-star recruit, looks healthy after offseason shoulder surgery, while heralded underclassmen Taylor and Kongbo have made similar impressions in camp. Lewis said the “the sky is the limit” for Kongbo, who continues to learn the game.
“This is going to be a fun year to watch on defense,” star linebacker Darrin Kirkland told SEC Country, specifically noting Taylor’s development.
“Darrel has put on about 15 pounds this offseason. His physicality shows. He’s a freak of nature right now. I’m looking forward to how he makes an impact.”
While Shoop must juggle playing time for such a deep group, it’s a good problem to have. Lewis “loves” the newfound competition in the room, saying, “it makes every day exciting.”
“We have young guys, old guys, guys been in the program one years, two years, three. We’re all just going head-to-head everyday. … We have a lot of ends that are great athletes. Guys that can run in space, can fly, can get inside on offensive linemen with power and speed. It’s really good. Pretty much every young end we have is very versatile.”
Jesse Simonton covers Tennessee football and recruiting for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and SECCountry.com